One in four women will be sexually harassed or assaulted before they graduate college, as taught by Missouri State University’s Title IX Coordinator, Jill Patterson. Breaking down the process of sexual education in public schools may shed light on why the likelihood of sexual assault on campus functions at this rate.
Federal and state laws do not always correspond regarding sexual education. States have the power to make their own standards, and many do not follow all the guidelines set by Congress.
For about a decade, The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, has published the national "Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education," and are now on their third edition. The word that has the most significance in this title is “comprehensive.”
Comprehensive sexual education means curriculum focuses both on the benefits of abstinence and on informing students how to healthily maintain their sexuality, according to Advocates for Youth’s article “Sex Education Programs: Definitions & Point-by-Point Comparison.”
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have 16 critical sexual health education topics.
But not all sex ed is required to be comprehensive. Many states pick and choose what they want to teach, lessening the liklihood of comprehensive sex ed.
According to the SIECUS Fiscal Year 2017 State Profiles, in Missouri, only 31.4% of secondary schools require students to take a health class that teaches the CDC’s 16 critical sexual health education topics. However, 92.6% of Missouri secondary schools teach sexual abstinence, which is only one of the 16 topics.
This is possibly a result of the Missouri Revised Statute 170.015(1), which says abstinence is “the preferred choice of behavior in relation to all sexual activity for unmarried pupils.” Is the method of teaching abstinence effective?
According to the CDC and National Center for Health statistics, a survey was taken of married people from 2011 to 2015. The survey showed 89.9% of men and 88.8% of women who are or have been married have participated in premarital sex.
These percentages depict that abstinence is often not the behavior teenagers and young adults choose to partake in. This does not include people who have never married.
While the idea of abstinence is the only method that is 100 percent effective in preventing teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs, according to Missouri Revised Statute 170.015(1), it ultimately sets students up for failure if they choose to participate in sexual activity. It does not properly prepare them with the information they need to know beforehand about sexual encounters.
If children and young adults are not taught proper sexual education material in school, they may turn to alternative sources that may be more detrimental than beneficial, an example of this being pornography.
“The access to and availability of pornography to young children is one of the greatest dangers,” Patterson said. “It would be wise to have frank conversations with K-12 students about those dangers. Face-to-face interactions have gotten more difficult because of other forms of communication, and the fact that so many people learn about sexuality through pornography has both reduced communication around consent and reduced interest in it altogether.”
Patterson believes the amount of Title IX incidents would decrease if students were taught a more robust approach to sexual education before they entered college.
Luckily, Springfield Public Schools, heavily incorporates consent into its curriculum and teaches it throughout, said Theresa Bledsoe, SPS assistant communications director.
“The curriculum regarding sexual education is consistent across the district, however, it is made age-appropriate for differing grade levels,” Bledsoe said. “All of the standards are set by the state.”
SPS Policy “IGAEB: Teaching About Human Sexuality” states that students must be taught “about consent, sexual harassment and sexual violence.”
More specifically, the policy defines the three terms and what consent consists of, or better yet, what it does not:
“An expression of lack of consent through words or conduct does not constitute consent.
Lack of verbal or physical resistance does not constitute consent.
Submission resulting from the use of force, threat of force or fear does not constitute consent.
A current or previous dating, social or sexual relationship between two parties does not by itself constitute consent.
The manner of dress chosen by a person does not constitute consent.”
If all schools in Missouri brought serious attention to consent, like SPS, and addressed the importance of talking to students about sex in general, the statistics of sexual harassment and violence could potentially change. That one in four chance of a woman being sexually attacked may decrease, saving them the physical and emotional damage that comes with such trauma.